Wednesday, April 21, 2010
In A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City, Clint Johnson depicts a nation going up in flames -- and a metropolis that did not
The following review was published earlier this month on the Books page of the History News Network.
This is a digressive, partisan, entertaining and unsettling book. Using an obscure failed 1864 plot to burn down New York City as its backdrop, popular historian Clint Johnson captures the aggrieved mood among die-hard Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War. His work also suggests the ongoing power such attacks on federal authority continue to exert in the imagination of the contemporary Right.
In the first and most fascinating section of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson traces the arc of what might be termed the romance -- or, perhaps more accurately, the marriage of convenience -- between the antebellum Cotton Kingdom and New York. The city's port facilities, financial infrastructure, and trade relationships made it the linchpin of the Southern economy, and while this interdependency periodically would cause resentment -- Johnson repeatedly cites a statistic that forty cents of every cotton dollar stayed in Manhattan -- the strong economic ties also had political as well as cultural consequences, principal among them a shared investment in slavery. The New York financial community remained sympathetic to secessionist sentiment for months after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who lost the city by an almost 2-1 margin, and there was talk in some quarters of the city seceding from the Union as well in early 1861. Only with the Confederate decision to attack Fort Sumter in April did this sympathy weaken. (I never understood until I read this book what a political masterstroke it truly was that Lincoln maneuvered the Fire-eaters of Charleston to fire the first shot.) By the end of 1861, it was increasingly becoming clear to the city's finance, manufacturing, and trading elites that joining the Union effort was going to be more lucrative than the slave trade ever was. While antiwar sentiment would continue to run high in the years that followed in some quarters, notably the working classes that erupted in the draft riots of 1863, the breach in the antebellum basis of the relationship would never be re-established.
After this promising beginning, Johnson gets sidetracked into a catalog of Confederate grievances with Union war policy in tactical decisions like the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 by Ulysses S. Grant, and General Philip Sheridan's systematic destruction of the Shenandoah Valley in late 1864, which sapped the Confederacy's ability to sustain its war effort. Johnson moves beyond portraying the Confederate point of view sympathetically to making some serious, albeit wobbly, allegations himself, as when he charges Lincoln with making "a horrendous mistake in judgment," in that he "may have expressly ordered or tacitly approved" an assassination attempt on Confederate president Jefferson Davis. (The evidence of this not-quite direct accusation is less than fully compelling.) By this logic, the 1864 attack on New York was no terrorist act, but rather a blow for justice in which those who sanctioned or condoned total war would get a taste of their own medicine.
This section of the book brings the underlying logic of the preceding one into focus: Johnson wants to show that the North was as racist as the South, and to suggest both a moral equivalence between the sections as well as a sense of legitimate grievance on the part of the Confederacy regarding Union conduct of the war that would justify the attempt to destroy Manhattan. The argument for Northern racism has, of course, long since been embraced as a staple premise of the academic left, so this is a fairly deft maneuver on Johnson's part. But a case that relies heavily on a coalition of slaveholders and bankers as a representative cross-section of American public opinion is not one that invites much in the way of identification or assent. One of the byproducts of this line of thinking, inside and outside the academy, is to make the fact that slavery did end, by Constitutional means, seem mysterious, if not impossible to understand.
In the second half of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson finally turns his attention to the sequence of events leading up to November 25, 1864, when a group of eight conspirators, many of them former colleagues of the dead Morgan, executed a long-planned operation in which they would break twelve dozen vials of an incendiary substance known as "Greek Fire" in twenty New York hotels. The conspirators expected their work would unleash the bottled fury of tens of thousands of city residents, who would express their solidarity with the Confederacy (or, at any rate, their hatred of the federal government). Needless to say, this wellspring of popular support for their actions was a figment of their imaginations. But Johnson also carefully traces the amateurishness of the conspirators, who not only did little to maintain their undercover operations, much of it based out of Canada, but who also failed to understand their chosen weapon. Never realizing that their fires would need oxygen for a true conflagration, they left the windows at their chosen sites closed, allowing the fires to be quickly doused. He also notes that by lighting the fires in the early evening, rather than the middle of the night, for supposedly humanitarian reasons, they blunted the force of their attack. While a number of the operatives were caught, only one was executed. Another, John William Headley, recounted the plot in his 1901 book Confederate Operations in New York and Canada. Johnson relies heavily on this source, which is of questionable veracity (as Johnson notes, Headley doesn't even remember the name of one of his collaborators). So while the whole incident is intriguing for what it might have been, it is finally an asterisk of Civil War history.
In a somewhat disquieting late chapter of the book, Johnson offers a five-part postmortem on the attack, pointing out (in disappointment?) the failures in execution that prevented an otherwise plausible plan from being realized. This analysis takes the form of crisply formulated principles, like "Good saboteurs wait for the right conditions," or ""Attacks are more successful when the target is sleeping." While it would not be fair to assert that Johnson actually endorsed what these people did, he never actually condemns them, either, and it's not hard to imagine a certain kind of reader interpreting his analysis as a kind of training manual.
Johnson, the author of eleven previous books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again) is a very good storyteller, and academic historians would do well to be attentive to the strong sense of narrative pacing that marks even his detours. But one finishes this book wondering to what ends, political and moral, his talent is being applied.